China Suggests a Sensible Plan to Head off US-Korea Clash: Washington Refuses
March 18, 2017
Ben Blanchard / Reuters & Chris Buckley and Somini Sengupta / The New York Times
China, fearing an escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula, called on North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile tests and for South Korea and the US to stop their provocative military drills on the North's border and seek talks instead. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned that the priority in the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program was "to flash the red light and apply brakes." In response, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is loudly gunning his engine and threatening to put his foot on the gas pedal.
China Asks North Korea to Stop Missile Tests,
Tells US and South to Seek Talks
Ben Blanchard / Reuters
BEIJING (March 8, 2017) -- China, fearing a rapid escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula, called on North Korea on Wednesday to stop its nuclear and missile tests and for South Korea and the United States to stop joint military drills and seek talks instead.
North Korea launched four ballistic missiles on Monday in response to the joint US-South Korea military exercises, which it regards as preparation for war.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the tests by the North and the joint drills across the border in South Korea were causing tension to increase like two "accelerating trains coming toward each other".
"China's suggestion is, as a first step, for North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile activities, and for the US and South Korea to also suspend large-scale military drills," Wang said at his annual news conference on the sidelines of the meeting of China's parliament in Beijing.
Such a "dual suspension" would allow all sides to return to the negotiating table, Wang said.
North Korea fired the four missiles into the sea off Japan's northwest coast on Monday, angering South Korea and Japan with the latest in a series of ballistic missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions in recent months.
"Holding nuclear weapons won't bring security, using military force won't be a way out," Wang said. "There remains a chance of resuming talks, there is still hope for peace."
His comments came a day after the US military started to deploy the first elements of its advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea.
That deployment added to the complexity of the tensions between South Korea and China, which opposes the THAAD deployment that it says destroys the regional security balance.
Wang reiterated those concerns on Wednesday, describing its deployment as a mistake.
China says as part of its objection that the system's far-reaching radar can penetrate into its territory. In turn, South Korea and the United States have said the missile system is aimed only at defending against any North Korean missiles.
The diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Seoul has deepened over the past week, with Chinese authorities closing nearly two dozen retail stores of South Korea's Lotte Group, which approved a land swap with the military last week to allow it to install the anti-missile system.
Lee Hyun-jae, chairman of the ruling Liberty Korea Party's policy committee, said on Tuesday South Korea would actively consider filing a complaint to the World Trade Organization over what it considers trade retaliation.
Since the THAAD deployment was announced, South Korean companies in China have reported cyber attacks, store closures and fines. State-controlled media in China has called for a boycott of South Korean goods and services.
China is also isolated North Korea's most important supporter, but China has been angered by its repeated missile and nuclear tests and has signed up for increasingly severe U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, including suspending coal imports.
However, China has also rejected accusations from US President Donald Trump that it could be doing more, saying the problem was ultimately between the United States and North Korea.
Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn after Monday's missile tests, with Abe later saying the threat from North Korea had "entered a new phase".
North Korea's missile and nuclear tests are seen as a growing test of resolve for Trump, who had vowed to get tough on Pyongyang, and his aides are pressing to complete a strategy review of how to counter the threats.
North Korea remained typically defiant.
North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi told the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Tuesday that the annual US-South Korean drills were "a major cause of escalation of tension that might turn into actual war".
North Korea is mired in a separate row with Malaysia over the murder of leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother at Kuala Lumpur international airport last month.
Malaysia and North Korea have expelled each other's ambassadors and announced tit-for-tat bans on departures of their nationals, sharply escalating tension between two countries that, until the killing of Kim Jong Nam, had maintained rare close ties.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sounded a more conciliatory tone, saying there were no plans to cut diplomatic ties as he attempts to secure the release of 11 Malaysians stuck in North Korea.
Police say King Jong Nam's attackers used VX nerve agent, a super-toxic chemical listed by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, to kill him.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING, James Pearson in SEOUL, Rozanna Latiff and Marius Zaharia in KUALA LUMPUR and Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Robert Birsel.
US and South Korea Rebuff
China's Proposal to Defuse Korea Tensions
Chris Buckley and Somini Sengupta / The New York Times
BEIJING (March 8, 2017) -- China tried unsuccessfully to calm newly volatile tensions on the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday, proposing that North Korea freeze nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to major military exercises by American and South Korean forces. The proposal was rejected hours later by the United States and South Korea.
"We have to see some sort of positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously," Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after a Security Council meeting in New York on the escalating Korea crisis. Standing beside her, Cho Tae-yul, the South Korean ambassador, said, "This is not the time for us to talk about freezing or dialogue with North Korea."
The statements by Ms. Haley and her South Korean counterpart came hours after China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, proposed the suspensions during a Beijing news conference, describing them as a way to create the basis for talks that would end North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The alternative to talks, he said, would be an increasingly perilous standoff that threatened the entire region.
"The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way," Mr. Wang said. "The question is: Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?"
But in what appeared to be a hardening American position on North Korea, Ms. Haley said the United States was re-evaluating its approach to the country and its unpredictable young leader, Kim Jong-un, whom she described as "not rational."
"I can tell you we're not ruling anything out, and we're considering every option," Ms. Haley said after the Security Council meeting, flanked by Mr. Cho and the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, Koro Bessho.
At the same time, Ms. Haley sought to reassure China publicly that the United States meant no harm by moving ahead with the deployment of a defensive missile shield system in South Korea, after North Korea's missile launch on Monday. China has condemned the missile shield as a provocation by the Americans that risked a new arms race in the region.
Developments this week have abruptly escalated regional tensions over the isolated North's nuclear arms development.
The North is also in a diplomatic standoff with Malaysia after the Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader's estranged half brother, in Kuala Lumpur. On Tuesday, Pyongyang -- angered by a police investigation that has named several North Koreans as suspects -- said that no Malaysians living in North Korea would be allowed to leave the country, and Malaysia quickly responded in kind.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wang said the priority in the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program was now "to flash the red light and apply brakes." China's "suspension for suspension" proposal "can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table," he said.
Doubts that the idea would gain traction were not surprising. North Korea made a similar offer in 2015 that went nowhere.
Mr. Wang's proposal was China's latest attempt to regain the initiative on the nuclear issue, which has bedeviled Beijing's efforts to stay friends with both North and South Korea and prove itself a mature regional power broker.
"The current situation is a challenge for the Chinese government's diplomacy," said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University in Beijing who specializes in North Korea. "The situation in the East Asian region is increasingly complicated, and the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear missile issue is increasingly slim," he said, referring to North Korea's nuclear arms program.
Reining in North Korea has also become a focus for the Trump administration's dealings with China. Starting next week, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is to visit Japan, South Korea and China for talks that will focus on "the advancing nuclear and missile threat" from North Korea, the State Department said.
North Korea's weapons advancements have reached a point where "we do need to look at other alternatives," Mark C. Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. "And that's part of what this trip is about, that we're going to talk to our allies and partners in the region to try to generate a new approach to North Korea."
But bringing the countries into agreement over initial steps toward peace will not be easy, especially while China is also in a deepening dispute with South Korea and the Trump administration.
At the same news conference where he laid out his proposal on Tuesday, Mr. Wang stuck to China's fierce opposition to the missile defense system the United States began assembling in South Korea this week, known as Thaad, or Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense.
The Chinese government says the system goes far beyond its declared purpose of warding off potential attacks by North Korea and could undermine China's military security. American and South Korean officials say that that is untrue, and that China should instead focus on halting North Korea's threats.
"It's common knowledge that the monitoring and early warning radius of Thaad reaches far beyond the Korean Peninsula and compromises China's strategic security," Mr. Wang said at the news conference, which was part of a regular round of briefings during China's annual legislative session. "It's not the way that neighbors should treat each other, and it may very well make South Korea less secure."
Mr. Wang's proposal for mutual suspensions was an attempt to give new life to China's long-running efforts to tamp down confrontation between North and South Korea. China is the North's only major economic and security partner, but it has also developed strong economic and political ties with South Korea that the missile defense system threatens to rupture.
For years, China hosted six-country talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which brought together North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
But those talks fell apart in 2009, and North Korea has continued to test nuclear weapons and refine missiles that could eventually carry nuclear warheads as far as the continental United States. North Korea described its launch on Monday of four ballistic missiles as practice for hitting American military bases in Japan.
American officials, and many Chinese experts, have grown skeptical that North Korea would ever seriously contemplate giving up its nuclear weapons.
China's rift with South Korea and the United States over the missile defense system is likely to embolden North Korea, making it more confident that Beijing would not turn on it, said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who specializes in nuclear proliferation issues.
"The deployment of Thaad has led to a serious deterioration in Chinese-South Korean relations, so North Korea is delighted with that," Dr. Shen said in an interview. North Korea appears to have passed the point where it would abandon its nuclear arms, he said. "There's no solution to this, because North Korea won't give up its nuclear weapons."
But Mr. Wang said negotiations were the only acceptable way to resolve the dispute.
"To resolve the nuclear issue, we have to walk on both legs," he said, "which means not just implementing sanctions, but also restarting talks."
North Korea's ties to the global financial system are also under renewed pressure. On Wednesday, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, issued a statement saying it had recently moved to ban North Korean banks from accessing its platform.
Swift operates as part of the backbone of global bank payment processing by providing a communication platform used by central banks and financial institutions around the world.
Several North Korean banks that were subject to sanctions by both the United Nations and the United States had continued as recently as last year to find ways to access the Swift network, according to a report by a United Nations expert panel that was published last week. Swift said it was responding to an enforcement action by the authorities in Belgium, where Swift is based, but it did not say when it moved to block the North Korean banks from its service.
Chris Buckley reported from Beijing, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations. Neil Gough contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
Follow Chris Buckley @ChuBailiang and Somini Sengupta @SominiSengupta on Twitter.
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